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Election will test Kenosha County Board’s shift to the right • Wisconsin Examiner

Two years ago Kenosha County government elections took a sharp turn to the right.

For the county’s Republican Party, the results were a smashing victory — putting a majority of Republican-supported candidates  in control of the officially nonpartisan county board and electing a GOP state representative to the nonpartisan county executive’s office.

What followed was a series of policy enactments embraced by the new board majority that sparked sharp backlash from public critics at county board meetings.

The board voted to repeal restrictions on carrying weapons in county government buildings. The majority voted to put a referendum on the November 2022 Kenosha County ballot declaring the county a “Second Amendment sanctuary” that passed by more than 3 percentage points.

A year into her four-year term, the new county executive, Samantha Kerkman, nominated and the board confirmed new members to a county racial and ethnic equity commission whose selection was widely criticized for being at odds with the group’s mission. Two of the original commission members resigned in protest. The commission has been subsequently mothballed.

A political test on both sides

Tuesday’s election will be the first test at the ballot box for the board’s 2022 majority. But it will also test that majority’s opposition — and test the efforts of overlapping groups of activists who want to reverse the 2022 outcome in a county that remains narrowly divided along ideological and party lines.

The incursion of explicitly partisan politics into the county’s governance is at odds with tradition and history. 

Under Wisconsin law, certain county offices are chosen in partisan elections held in November: sheriff, district attorney, county clerk, county treasurer, clerk of circuit court, coroner and register of deeds.

But races that are held in April — for county board, county executive, judge, school board and for all municipal executive offices (mayor, council member, municipal clerk and treasurer are the most common) — are officially nonpartisan.

To be sure, partisan identities have been close to the surface from time to time in some local nonpartisan races across the state. Wisconsin’s last Republican governor, Scott Walker, was catapulted to the office after being elected and reelected to the nonpartisan job of Milwaukee County executive. He ran for that post while a GOP member of the Wisconsin Assembly.

In Kenosha County Jim Kreuser had been a Democratic state Assembly member for 15 years and a leader of his party in the chamber for half that period before running for the nonpartisan county executive post in a 2008 special election.

During Kreuser’s 14-year tenure in the county job, however, partisan identities stayed in the background. “Jim left partisanship at the door,” said Joe Clark, a former Kenosha County Board chair, in a 2023 interview. “There was no partisanship from Jim at all.”

Clark describes himself as a Republican and a conservative, but he speaks highly of Kreuser as someone he could work with productively. And he has been a sharp critic of the turn that the county GOP took in the 2022 election and its aftermath. He won a settlement last year after suing the former county Republican chair for defamation.

In April 2022 Kreuser opted not to run for a fourth full term, retiring instead. That election saw a marked shift in how the Republican Party approached the politics of the county board and county executive’s office.

Leaning into August 2020 conflict

The August 23, 2020, Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake, who was left paralyzed, and the unrest in the city that followed, cast a long shadow over the 2022 races.

Mass protests in the nights after the shooting escalated, with fires and property damage that made national news. After a self-styled militia leader put out a call on social media for armed civilians to converge on Kenosha, an Illinois 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse, was among those who responded. Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters and wounded a third. Rittenhouse was acquitted in a 2021 trial after his attorneys argued he had acted in self-defense.

In the April 2022 county races the county Republican Party weighed in heavily — endorsing candidates and making donations of $500 and $1,000 to their campaigns, according to filings with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. Campaign messaging focused heavily on the violence in Kenosha 20 months earlier.

The party had endorsed some county board candidates in previous elections, but  local political veterans on both sides say the Republican-backed candidates’ embrace of party affiliation and the party’s financial support in 2022 were beyond what they’d seen either party do in the past.

“I don’t put all my stock whether someone’s a Republican or a Democrat,” Clark said in the 2023 interview. “I put my stock in somebody who’s willing to do work.”

Sandy Wiedmeyer, the Kenosha County Republican Party chair, acknowledged that embracing partisanship was a shift from past practices. Wiedmeyer — who was not the party leader in the 2022 spring elections — suggested in a recent interview that it reflected a broader mood.  “We live in really polarizing times,” she said.

Watching from the left side of the political spectrum, political activist Jodi Muerhoff saw two contrasting campaigns in the 2022 county races.

“What I saw and experienced was watching the Democratic-leaning, left-leaning candidates running nonpartisan campaigns, and the right-leaning candidates being fully embraced and supported by the Republican party,” Muerhoff said in a recent interview.

Muerhoff operates an independent, progressive political Facebook page, Forward Kenosha. She’s also a recent addition to the Kenosha County Democratic Party board, but she emphasized she was speaking from her Forward Kenosha vantage point and not as a Democratic Party representative.

“Personally I believe these races should be nonpartisan,” Muerhoff said of the county board elections. In 2022 she approved of the efforts made by candidates she supported to run nonpartisan races. But the outcome, she added, was that “these candidates didn’t win.”

Organizing for 2024

In the aftermath of the 2022 results, there has been partisan as well as nonpartisan organizing to take the county board’s politics in a different direction.

A nonpartisan group formed to recruit candidates to run in this year’s election. Muerhoff said that group has included Republicans who opposed the new board majority’s actions, such ending gun restrictions in county buildings.

The group began organizing meetings and “educating ourselves about what the county board is actually supposed to be doing,” she said.

At the same time, some of this year’s board candidates who align themselves with the Democratic Party have been more explicit about that, too.

“We’ve gone full out on Facebook and everywhere, and had our party vote on people we endorsed,” said Sally Simpson, vice chair of the Kenosha County Democratic Party. She said the state party agreed to a bylaws change allowing endorsements in officially nonpartisan races.

Further complicating the political dynamics this year is a fissure that opened up more than a year ago among some of the county’s Republicans and resulted in the replacement of several leaders in the county organization.

In late 2022 Clark, the former county board chair, won a $10,000 settlement from the party’s chair at the time, Kenosha County Board member Erin Decker, over posts on the county party’s Facebook page attacking Clark.

Decker and five other members of the county’s Republican Party board resigned and the party reorganized, naming Wiedmeyer chair.

Wisconsin Ethics Commission filings showed the party had paid more than $23,000 to lawyers to defend Decker before reaching the settlement. After assuming the chair’s post Wiedmeyer said last year that she and other party leaders had been unaware of those expenses until after the fact.

Wiedmeyer said at the time that Decker and other former GOP board members resigned on their own and were not forced out.

As campaigns for Tuesday’s county board elections got underway, Clark launched a website attacking Decker, pointedly noting that it was funded by the defamation settlement he won.  

The county Republican Party, meanwhile, has formally endorsed nine county board candidates in an ad it has posted on social media and on news sites in the county.

That Republican ad lists eight other candidates who are not endorsed, but whom the party has “recommended based on history and platform.” Decker and several other board members who have been most closely associated with her — some of whom were among the party’s board members who quit when she did — are among them.

Both the activists organizing to reverse the 2022 results and the county Republican Party chair whose goal is to prevent that profess optimism ahead of Tuesday night’s vote counting.

“Even if we make it a board that has a closer majority than it is right now, I think there’s a chance for more reasonable governance,” said Muerhoff.

Wiedmeyer said the Republican Party’s goal is to maintain its majority and for Kenosha County voters “to get represented by folks that share their values.”

At the same time, Wiedmeyer said that candidates Republicans have endorsed “are trying to take the approach that they want to reach across the aisle.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2024%2F04%2F02%2Felection-will-test-kenosha-county-boards-shift-to-the-right%2F by Erik Gunn

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